(8/24/20) bureaucracy and the laws of locality

Hey all,

People are headed back to school! I’ve got parents, schoolteachers, and students in my thoughts.

How are we adapting? Some parents are going part-time status so that their kids get the attention they need.

Is it even possible to adapt? Some schools are going fully virtual — are schools empowering teachers to experiment? Some schools are planning on opening their doors — what is administration doing to protect their teachers and students?

One thing is clear. This pandemic has pushed our essential institutions to the limit, which has surfaced … all sorts of weird. I wrote about this a few weeks ago— give it a read if it tickles your fancy.

What I’m Thinking About

Some ideas are so piercing that it is difficult to unsee them once you learn about them. The Laws of Locality belong to this group.

These laws comprise of three principles:

1/ “Put control where it affects change.” Decisions should happen at the location of where the effects are experienced. Conceptually related objects belong together. You can do a lot of things here, as long as they feel close by.

In Gmail, each message has its own dedicated inlined actions. If these actions existed elsewhere, we would feel a bit disoriented going back and forth between the message and the controls.

2/ “If a control affects change across an entire area, place it above that area.” The objects that are conceptually "higher" have single-purpose control over specific change. And this is where the idea of hierarchy pretty much begins. The higher up a thing goes, the more territory it influences, but each unit of influence across that territory is necessarily small.

In Stripe's API docs, the "Collapse all" control does one thing: hide all the description text for each of the three parameters listed below it. That's all it does. A small unit of change applied to more than one thing.

3/ “The farther a control is from where it affects change, the more it should pop.” As things get bigger and more complex, we need to be more thoughtful about where decisions happen and where their effects manifest.

Sometimes the best option we have is to throw in something that cuts through all the noise. But it has to serve an active, important purpose. Deciding what cuts through and what doesn’t is a value statement, an act of vision. What is important and why?

Back to Gmail ... this time their mobile experience. The primary action we take other than reading + filtering our messages is composing messages. To place that decision front and center, Gmail has a red "floating action button" always there for you at the bottom right of the screen.

(If you're interested in any of this, I highly recommend Erik Kennedy's awesome design blog and course material)

The Laws of Locality and Bureaucracy

You can't unsee the Laws of Locality. An experience just feel better and more spacious when these laws are followed. And when they are disobeyed? Well, there’s a term for that … bureaucracy.

"The aim of bureaucracy is to find the one worst way—that which wastes the most time and involves the most people and steps."

- Aaron Dignan, Brave New Work

Bureaucracy is a failure of navigation design.

Every navigation problem involves the flow of decisions and information. In the case of large institutions ... How should relevant information get from one place to another while minimizing loss of clarity? How should decisions occur when there is so much going on everywhere?

In a bureaucracy, decision-making remains centralized, but relevant information and responsibility for consequences is decentralized. This is how you end up needing 10 rounds of approval, how meetings end up taking up most of your day, and how people start talking That Way.

You know what That Way is. It's the mini-politician speaking authoritatively with a swell of buzzwords, doing everything possible to maintain plausible deniability in case something goes wrong.

When decision-making and accountability don't exist in the same place, territorial bullshitting reigns supreme. And where there is territorial bullshitting, there is a bullshit hierarchy.

How Information Flows in a Bureaucracy

The bottom of the bureaucracy ("loser") doesn't seek to do anything useful; it merely exists to avoid fucking up. These employees have wasted too many years trying to find meaning or purpose. Now it's time to do as little work as possible and collect the paycheck.

The middle of the bureaucracy ("clueless") is the ambitious striver. This segment prides itself on knowing the ins and outs of the arcane rules and rituals required to get anything done. It is motivated by performance reviews and promotions.

The top of the bureaucracy ("sociopath") pads its status and its pockets. All the real decision-making happens here, even though all the relevant information and accountability exists down the bureaucracy.

Responsibility for consequences gets pushed down to the middle, and the middle earnestly whips the bottom to achieve “business outcomes.”

As a result, in a bureaucracy, no one knows what’s really going on. If you’ve seen Chernobyl on HBO, this should sound all too familiar.

This arrangement exists because in modern life, some people want to be sedated (losers), some people desperately need something to believe in (clueless), and some people want to live forever (sociopaths). It’s the samsara of the corporation, where we all suffer differently enough that we don’t mind resenting each other.

(Venkatesh Rao wrote a great series of essays diving deep into all these strange structural dynamics — “The Gervais Principle”)

The Bureaucracy's "Floating Action Button"

There is a glimmer of hope, though. There's one circumstance in which a large organization can actually produce something great.

A skunkworks operation: a small internal team willing to put their reputation on the line. It possesses the mandate, vision, and skills to cut through to what matters.

When you can't escape the bureaucracy, go skunkworks. Seek out people with the authority to write the checks (a reformed sociopath), the energy to barrel through pounds of red tape (a reformed clueless), and the self-direction to get to work (a reformed loser).

Maybe that’s the sign of a healthy large organization— How easy is it to pull together a skunkworks operation? Anecdotally, Amazon does this well.

My personal rule is to avoid bureaucracy as much as possible. Keep things small and minimize administrative overhead. Work with people seeking to do the same.

Small is beautiful because it naturally obeys the Laws of Locality. Perhaps this betrays my age, and as I get older I may change my mind on this.

Bullet-Point Summaries

The Sweet Spot Between Laissez-Faire and Centralized Planning

  1. Rule of thumb: create more value than you capture.

  2. Google embraced the “architecture of participation” and became an enabling platform for so many people. They kept some of the spare change and became a billion-dollar company.

  3. Now they, along with other tech giants, wish to capture more value than they create.

  4. Ironically, this creates a natural selection pressure to find a better way. By optimizing short-term advantage, the tech incumbents are closing the door on themselves.

  5. This situation is a microcosm of the current economy at-large. The doors of opportunity have closed for millions of people. New models will necessarily emerge.

Venture Capital Kills More Businesses Than It Helps

  1. Many businesses could be great $20mm businesses, but they are not allowed to be. There is pressure from investors to push them to $200mm valuations.

  2. The pressure to maintain growth rates means many tech entrepreneurs never learn how to spend money in a disciplined, sustainable way.

  3. As a result … Silicon Valley is taking the highest-margin product you could ever have — which is software — and turn it into the lowest-margin, negative-margin business model ever.

  4. There’s this herd mentality and people are focusing on the wrong things and paying so much attention to what they call “best practices.” And oftentimes they’re really terrible practices.

Thanks for reading! I’ve been at this new format now for a few weeks. Would love to hear from you. Which particular themes have caught your interest?

Ammar